There are some films that will just remain with you after you watch, the type of films that make you sit with your thoughts while the credits roll. The type of film that never leaves your head, even in the days after. With themes that sit at a three-way intersection of teen angst, toxic masculinity deconstruction and racial marginalization, Charm City Kings is one of the most impressive films of the year.
The film is an adaptation of sorts, pulled from the documentary film about Black dirt bike riders in Baltimore, 12 O’Clock Boys. Also produced by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith's Overbrook Entertainment, the documentary follows the Baltimore riders as they live life to the fullest while staying ahead of the police. Directed by Lofty Nathan, the documentary centered on Pug, described on the film's website as “a bright kid from the Westside obsessed with the riders and willing to do anything to join their ranks." Nathan wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times that the 12 O'Clock Boys, "as reckless as they may be, provide a sense of purpose for many of Baltimore's marginalized youth."
Charm City Kings the builds on this story and centers on Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), a young teenager in West Baltimore who is torn between two worlds with conflicting dreams and aspirations. On one hand, Mouse is an intelligent kid who takes care of his little sister when his mother is at work and school. He also has a love for animals, a job at a local clinic and hopes to one day become a veterinarian. On the other hand, still reeling from the untimely death of his older brother, he yearns for the street life and the feeling of freedom that comes from being a part of Baltimore’s dirt-bike scene.
The two figures in Mouse’s life that illustrate the push and pull between these two different paths set for him are his mentor, Detective Rivers (Will Catlett), and the infamous leader of the Midnight Clique, Blax (Meek Mill), who just got out of jail and is trying to make amends.
As the film progresses, Mouse and his two best friends, Lamont (Donielle T. Hansley Jr.) and Sweartagawd (Kezii Curtis) become increasingly attracted to The Ride. It’s a summer tradition within the dirt-biking community where all of the riders take to the streets, doing stunts and tricks as spectators watch in awe. The police also sit back and watch before they decide to make their move, only to be outpaced by the bikers when they try to restore order.
The allure of The Ride and the Midnight Clique is the most tempting to Mouse, who is seemingly eager to step into his brother’s shoes. This is something that terrifies his mother (Teyonah Parris), who is afraid to lose another son to this fast lifestyle. Blax, who had a deep connection with Mouse’s older brother, tries to shelter Mouse from these dangers. This is a full-circle moment for Blax as he realizes the impact of his past actions and how they have affected the youth in his community.
But Mouse is determined to make a name for himself, with or without Blax. He will do anything to be down with the Clique and soon, his friends, who were initially hesitant about the group, begin to follow down the same path. Things spiral so quickly that Mouse loses control of the situation before he knows it. They are all on a dangerous path that changes all three of their lives forever.
Though the story of Charm City Kings is deeply devastating, it finds hope amidst tragedy and is proof that life’s hardest lessons are learned through actions that we regret. The film has distinct tones, hopping from foul-mouthed and crude-humored teen comedy to brutal crime drama. But director Angel Manuel Soto and screenwriter Sherman Payne float in and out of these vastly different genres with ease. Thanks to Soto and Payne’s deliberate choices in framing, dialogue and story, the film also unpacks toxic masculinity in a way that is rarely depicted on-screen.
The most important thing that Charm City Kings does is demonstrate humanity and empathy. Mouse isn’t yearning to be down with the Clique to be on the street, but to support his family and to capture a feeling of freedom. Trapped in a world they didn’t create, the kids only feel free when they are on the bikes. Soto masterfully brings this to the screen, especially in the expertly-crafted scenes (shout out to cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi) during The Ride. Some levity and sweetness comes to the film when a romance sparks between Mouse and a new girl in town (Chandler DuPont), showing the ups and downs of young love.
Winston, who has been turning in stellar performances since his role as young Ralph Tresvant in The New Edition Story, continues to demonstrate why he’s one of the best young actors in Hollywood. The film rests squarely on his shoulders and he steps up to the plate, big time. From the sheer charisma that he exudes to the acting choices he makes, such as Mouse’s wide-eyed smile and nailing a thick Baltimore accent, Winston proves once again he is a star. Hansley Jr. and Curtis are also wonderful, with the former providing one of the darkest twists of the film and the latter being able to carry much of the film’s lighter moments, despite the film’s heft.
Though she doesn’t have a ton of screentime, Parris is an absolute marvel as Mouse’s mother and is terrific as a matriarch in crisis. One of the film’s most emotional moments is a showdown between mother and son, and Winston and Parris leave everything on the screen. Then there is rapper Meek Mill, whose nuanced performance and embodiment of Blax proves he has a promising future in acting. He shines in a role that mirrors his real life. Mill, an avid dirt biker in a similar community in Philadelphia like the one in Baltimore, was arrested in 2017 after police saw him riding the bike on Instagram. This arrest spawned years of unjust legal incidents that were highlighted in the Amazon docuseries, Free Meek. It seems poetic that Mill's transformation into a symbol of criminal justice reform has parallels to Blax's heroic arc in the film.
It has been some time since we’ve seen a gritty, full-hearted urban crime tale the likes of films like Boyz n the Hood and Juice. Charm City Kings joins that pantheon.
Charm City Kings premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It will be released later this year via HBO Max.
Photo: Overbrook Entertainment
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